Mistakes to avoid before COP 26

The next meeting, in November 2020 in Glasgow, is at risk of becoming a point of no return for the climate, energy and development issues.

by Roberto Di Giovan Paolo
09 January 2020
7 min read
by Roberto Di Giovan Paolo
09 January 2020
7 min read

Antonio Guterres, Secretary General of the United Nations, has strayed from diplomacy, calling COP 25 "a political failure and a lost opportunity for the world's political leaders".  Meanwhile, Patricia Espinosa, the executive secretary of the UNFCCC (which coordinated the COP for the UN), tried to salvage what could be saved while, at the same time, reminding us that 114 countries have promised to submit their updated action plans.   Hence the appointment of the COP 26 in Glasgow, which shows promising commitment to finding a large prior consensus among the Parties, in the hope of avoiding a repetition of the COP 25.

Unfortunately, as early as last year we were being overly optimistic on our commentary on COP 24. The spectacle of the Polish President, who is also Minister of the Environment, leaping boldly onto the speaker’s rostrum suggested that he had found the courage to go the extra mile. This was both admirable and valuable given that he represents a country with one of the closest ties to the fossil fuel market.  Yet this did obscure the fact that, at Katowice, he had already agreed to a Final Declaration, which provided a sort of reasoned summary of things to be done to implement Paris 2015.  While this was certainly useful for taking stock of the situation, it was perhaps more suitable for a sherpa summit than for a political assembly.  He did this in order to avoid a formal failure of the conference, which was imminent, not only because of the absence of Trump, but also due to the diplomatic games played by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Russia, as well as the absence of Macron (who had cancelled his appearance in view of this impending disaster).

Moreover, just after COP 24, Jair Bolsonaro, the then newly elected president of Brazil, withdrew his earlier pledge to organise COP 25; Chile, which then offered to replace its South American neighbour, certainly did not expect to find itself in the political and social chaos, which led to COP 25 taking place in Madrid last December under a Chilean presidency.

In short, COP 25 had delivered a collection of guidelines for the measures, which were signed - and ratified - at Paris by Cop 19 (a kind of rulebook of approximately 100 pages), and had recalled the due dates of some actions. If these had been respected, COP 25 would have been contentious but still manageable (not least because the Paris Agreement, and its subsequent versions, foresee possible economic sanctions).

Unfortunately, the predictions of good would turn out to be false and concrete actions non-existent: the sticking point cited, and usefully detailed at Katowice, of the pledged reductions of CO2 - the so called INDC - was not dealt with. The ambiguity of the ultra-diplomatic language used to gain acceptance of the IPCC 2018 report allowed climate-sceptic countries to keep this key point of the discussion open throughout 2019.  Relations between the responsible governments, NGOs and global and regional environmental groups have deteriorated, not least because the NGOs insist on including in the debate the subject of the influence of climate change on human rights, food security and gender equality, engaging government policy not only in its environmental and industrial aspects.

What we also know is that a stable or rising GDP is not always compatible with human or civil rights. Most importantly, COP 24 did not go beyond generalities concerning the issue of an international market for CO2 emissions and left the difficult question of the Adaptation Fund, estimated at 128 million dollars, unresolved.

On this premise, COP 25 was certainly never going to work miracles, as indeed it didn't!

This was also due to the fact that the international geopolitical situation has become very complicated. An example of this can be seen with Turkey, which fought at Katowice because, within the framework of the United Nations, it is considered to be a developed country.  This prevents it from accessing the funds that most developed and higher CO2 emission-countries should, according to the Paris Agreement, make available to developing countries for their energy exploitation or lower emissions.  Is it realistic to imagine that this topic could have been tackled peacefully at the COP 25, in December 2019, with Turkey, given its position in Syria, Libya and the Middle East, and with its internal situation?

On the other hand, speaking of countries that seem to offer, democratically speaking, a more steadfast internal view, Australia can be cited as a case in point.  Devastated for a few months by fires of a broadly similar size to those seen in Brazil's Amazon Rainforest, it had hoped to receive more attention at the COP 25.

It did receive this, on a large scale, from the media.  This was after auditor-sherpas, in charge of the data update on the Paris venue, had discovered the Australian government’s use of credits, saved from its CO2 emissions from a previous agreement (namely Kyoto, 1997), to circumvent the 2015 Paris pledge.  This was done by loading credits, acquired through this Treaty, onto its 2018-19 accounts, and carrying them over to take effect in 2020.  However, these had actually terminated and expired.

There were topics left unaddressed and put on hold; "adjusted" figures for emissions and controversy over accounts to be settled.  These were all things that the diplomacy is well aware of, and which - without casting aspersions - form part of the arsenal of international organisations.  There were issues cloaked in "protecting national interests ", as well as parts of strategies and tactics on the international diplomatic chessboard.  However these revealed much about how the United Nations, if they want to convene a COP 26 that can meet the standards determined in Paris, will need to effect a decisive change of gear, especially on the eve of the United States’ possible exit from the deal if Trump triumphs in November 2020.

The very first task would be to set out conditions to prevent Glasgow's Cop 26 resulting in yet another failure.  Perhaps it would be useful to make this political, and highly visible media event, a biennial occurrence, and to intersperse this perhaps with a mixture of government meetings, NGOs, and involvement from public organisations.  However, this could also suggest, and symbolise, a step backwards justified through a fear of continuing the journey.

What is certain, is that if we want to hold on to the November 2020 date in Glasgow, the June work session in Bonn, scheduled from the 1st right through to the 11th of the month, must not be just a simple evaluation between state officials and the United Nations officials. 

Nobody is denying that some countries are determined to steer the process with an excess of policy and iron will in order to convene a meeting that is normally reserved for simply adding some finishing diplomatic touches.  This is evident through those members who, this time, have made the EU, with its  "European Green Deal" presented by the commission's newly elected Von Der Leyen, look so good throughout.

While, if this is not the case, we should know six months in advance how this Scotland event will turn out.